Prove your humanity

In East Palestine, OH, some residents are still recovering from the February train derailment and chemical fires. They traveled to Columbus this week, calling on Ohio Governor Mike DeWine to request that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declare an emergency in their region before a July 3rd deadline to do so. 

Such a declaration would provide resources, including financial assistance. DeWine says FEMA has indicated that the derailment would not qualify for that kind of aid, but he submitted a letter this week asking again that the agency give the state additional time to assess the impacts of the incident and request assistance. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency visited farms in East Palestine and nearby Pennsylvania last week. 

In February, soon after the chemical explosion, farmer Dave Anderson of Beaver County, Pennsylvania, who lives about 4 miles from the derailment site, was worried about his cows and other animals. He had questions about which chemicals were in the plume of smoke.

What and how much? And what are the implications of that?” Anderson asked at the time. “That’s the information that we’d love to hear from them.” 

Now, more than four months later, regulators have overseen testing of the soil and plants in the region. The Allegheny Front’s Julie spoke with US EPA Regional Administrator Debra Shore, who visited farms in the East Palestine area and nearby Pennsylvania this month.

Listen to the interview:

Julie Grant: What are you hearing from farmers now?

Debra Shore: We had been hearing from farmers and farm bureaus of concerns that the plume of smoke from the vent and burn and from the fire caused by the original derailment might have deposited harmful chemicals or hazardous constituents on farmland. Other people, residents, were concerned about their backyards and some about their businesses. Farmers were worried, ‘Can I plant this season?,’ because the derailment happened before the advent of planting season and there were some concerns that plants growing might take up any contaminants in their plant tissue.

Grant: So it sounds like there were concerns about the safety of plants and also about the soils. Can you talk about how this has been addressed? 

Shore: EPA oversaw a comprehensive soil sampling and testing effort conducted by Norfolk Southern, but overseen by EPA, that endeavored to take soil samples from farms both in Ohio and Pennsylvania. They were sent to testing labs. Some of them were called split samples, so the same sample was divided in two and sent to two different labs. That’s a form of validating the results and ensuring that it’s scientifically sound. 

Grant: And what chemicals have farmers been worried about? Dioxins, volatile organic compounds?

Shore: All of those, and principally about dioxins. 

Grant: And what did those soil tests find? 

Shore: There were no elevated levels revealed from the rigorous testing of dioxins or furans or other semi-volatile organic compounds. 

Grant: And can you talk about the testing of plant tissue? 

Shore: So, Ohio State University also conducted a tissue sampling and testing effort to test a variety of plant material.

Grant: What kind of plants did they test? 

Shore: They took samples from plant tissue from winter wheat, pasture grasses, malting barley and forage covers, which were among the most common plants that were of concern to the farmers. These were from agricultural sites in the East Palestine area. They collected and tested from locations closest to the derailment site because those were considered most likely to have been contaminated. 

Grant: What were the results? 

Shore: I’m happy to report that they didn’t find reportable levels of what are called semi-volatile organic compounds in a radius close to where the burns occurred and where the soot was deposited. Therefore, they also concluded it was highly unlikely that anything would have occurred farther away. 

Grant: What are you hearing from people about these findings that neither the soil nor the plants are showing contamination levels of concern? 

Shore: The farmers that we’ve been talking to, and indeed those I met with last week, are deeply relieved. They’re proceeding with their planting and harvesting. Not only can farmers be confident about planting, but so too can residents who are planting in their backyards and gardens and so forth. 

Grant: Some people have had independent soil tests done and say they found numerous chemicals that could be tied to the train derailment and fires. But do you feel confident in the EPA’s findings? 

Shore: I do. One thing I would say is that we know that dioxins are found throughout our communities, throughout our neighborhoods. They occur as a result of wildfires and grilling in your backyard and a whole range of things. There are dioxins just present at background levels, and that may be also true for a variety of other chemical constituents. 

EPA was able to compare the findings of contaminants in the soils to what we call regional screening levels and the known typical concentration levels in soil. Comparing that with a broader database gives us confidence that it is highly unlikely. Now, there were a couple of samples taken in public rights of way, right by roadsides, where there were slightly more elevated levels. You might easily understand why, because of a variety of traffic and other potential sources in those locations. 

I would invite anyone who has had independent testing done to meet with our scientists and to share their methodology and the kinds of tests performed by the laboratories that their samples were sent to. We want to make sure that they are subject to the same scientific rigor and the same methodology so that it’s scientifically valid to compare those results. 

Grant: One concern we’ve heard from farmers is consumer confidence. Do you think there’s any reason for people to steer clear of food products produced in this region? 

Shore: I think the fact that there’s been this multi-layered rigorous testing should lead people to be confident that there hasn’t been contamination of nearby farms or of farms further away – that the plume dissipated, that the volatile organics volatilized, and they don’t stay around. They can disappear in exposure to sunlight and so on. 

I drink the water whenever I’m in East Palestine, and I will happily visit the farmer’s markets. 

Grant: If farmers have difficulty selling their products because of consumer safety concerns, is there a way to hold Norfolk Southern accountable? 

SHORE: For sure. EPA issued a unilateral administrative order in February that will ensure that Norfolk Southern must pay for all the costs of the cleanup of the derailment. But that includes ancillary costs and other harms to the community. So there is, through the legal system, a way to hold them accountable for much of the damage caused by the derailment. I can’t speak to specific farms or harms they may have suffered, and that’s something they may need to confer with an attorney about, but definitely Norfolk Southern will be responsible for paying for the cleanup and the trauma that they caused.